Sunday, October 11, 2020

Citizenship Up Yonder: Sermon on Philippians 3:17-21

One October afternoon, a fierce battle raged in the plains west of the city. It was a pivotal engagement in the civil war. Not the American Civil War – the Roman. It was the second battle on that field. With their backs to the city were the soldiers employed by Marcus Junius Brutus, betrayer of Julius Caesar. He and Gaius Cassius Longinus, his brother-in-law and co-conspirator in the Caesar assassination two and a half years earlier, had been marching through Macedonia, pressing back toward Rome. But here at Philippi, the advance of their seventeen legions had been halted by the nineteen legions of the Triumvirate for Confirming the Republic. Two of the triumvirs, one being Mark Antony and the other being the late Julius Caesar's adopted son 'Octavian,' had come to stop them. The first battle had culminated in Cassius' suicide. And for the twenty days since then, Brutus and his men had stayed holed up in their fortifications on the hilltop as Antony and Octavian, their troops hungry and lacking supplies, had come daily to taunt them, hoping to goad Brutus into a second battle. Alas, Brutus' men felt cowardly trying to wait out the clock, and so against his will, Brutus had finally led his army out, lining them up southwest of Philippi. As Brutus gave his soldiers a pep talk, so Antony and Octavian readied their troops: “This very day must decide for us either a complete victory or an honorable death.”

And then the battle was joined. The armies rushed together into close combat. Tens of thousands of soldiers on either side – all Roman – hacked at each other with their swords, falling in great numbers like a slaughterhouse. But at last, the forces commanded by 21-year-old Octavian managed to push back Brutus' line until their ranks broke. While Octavian's men seized the gates, Antony had his forces go on the maddening offensive. It was chaos, it was massacre, it was violence. Brutus beat a hasty retreat into the mountains with what men he could escape with, no more than four legions. Through the night, he entertained hopes of fleeing or retaking his camp, but with the Triumvirate forces guarding the roads and his own officers proving cowards, Brutus gave up the fight – and did as Cassius had done, having himself killed on the spot. The so-called Liberators had lost – that day, October 23 in 42 BC, spelled the end of the ringleaders of the assassination of Julius Caesar. One later Roman historian explained that “Heaven was incensed against them and often forewarned them of their doom” (Appian, Civil Wars 4.134). It was that day that decided the future of the Roman people, set the stage for the creation of the Roman Empire itself. It was the final day of the Battle of Philippi. Philippi would go down in Roman history not so differently than Gettysburg would in ours.

With Cassius and Brutus both dead, and Antony and Octavian the clear victors, something had to be done with the troops. Antony and Octavian declared, on the spot, that Philippi would henceforth be a Roman colony city, meaning it had rights and institutions equal to any city in Italy. They mustered out soldiers into retirement there and confiscated the lands around Philippi from the local Greek and Thracian elite, dividing the territory into a grid of farmland for the veterans to settle. And so began the colony. Eleven years passed, and when Octavian and Antony finally came to blows, their dispute was settled at the Battle of Actium in September 31 BC. The following year, Octavian returned and settled many of Antony's former troops, as well as a whole cohort of the Praetorian Guard, at Philippi, refounding the colony anew. In the years ahead, Octavian would claim sole power in the newborn Roman Empire, renaming himself Augustus and priding himself on having saved the Roman people. Meanwhile, at Philippi, the Roman veterans established themselves as the upper class.

But Philippi was in Macedonia, near the border of wild Thrace, and every now and then the Roman army would have to come and put down invading raids. Between 12 and 9 BC, for instance, a Roman general had to come defend Philippi and places like it in a three-year war: Lucius Piso is credited with having “brought these fiercest of races to their former state of peaceful subjection: by putting an end to this war, he restored... peace to Macedonia,” including Philippi (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.98). And so went the history of Philippi. By the middle of the first century when Paul's writing his letter, Philippi has about ten thousand people living in the city and another five thousand in the fifteen or so villages of the surrounding territory – making it a bit less populated than Ephrata's borough and township here. About 40% of the townsfolk were Roman citizens, many being descendants of the veteran colonists and others being ex-slaves who gained citizenship on being set free. But even with Romans as a minority, the town's whole culture looked up to Roman culture, Roman institutions, and this Roman elite. The signs in town were in Latin, the town library collected books in Latin. It was the local Romans who owned all the land, the local Romans who had all political control. And they ran things like it was a miniature Rome. The church looked a lot like the town – about a third of the Philippian Christians Paul is writing to are Roman citizens, but the other two-thirds of the church lacks citizenship, they're merely Rome's subjects but not citizens. Citizen or not, the Christians still live in a culture dominated by Roman influences.

And that's why it comes across so strikingly when Paul just declares to them all: Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Only a third of the church could say they were Roman citizens, but the whole church – even the slaves, even the poor, even the disenfranchised and perpetually second-class in Philippian society – were extended the dignity of being citizens of a different empire, a different city. And the capital of this empire isn't Rome (and neither is it London or Harrisburg or Washington DC); it's heaven. You could also translate Paul's phrase a bit differently, maybe as “our commonwealth is in heaven,” or as “our constitution is in heaven,” or “our government is in heaven” – the word Paul uses comes from the same root as 'politics.'

Rome and its Italian territories were the ancestral homeland of the Roman citizens colonizing Philippi, and so Philippi's Romans knew that they had settled among many non-Romans, and that most Romans lived back in the homeland, in the old country. And that shaped the way they thought. Just the same, heavenly citizens living in the earthly colony have to realize that we've settled among many non-heavenly neighbors – people like Paul describes as “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their gut” and who “glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). But most heavenly citizens live back in the homeland, in the old country up yonder. It's a current reality: most of our people are not here where we are, they're in heaven – they're the saints whose stories we tell and the loved ones whose memories burn in our hearts. And the fact that the majority of our population is back in the homeland – well, that should change the way we think.

See, Roman citizens in Philippi knew that being a citizen meant having a core allegiance to Rome's constitution and commonwealth. And that core allegiance created an obligation for them to act in distinctively Roman ways, to embody Roman values and support Roman institutions. That was Roman patriotism. That was citizenship. And from what Paul says, it becomes clear that being a heavenly citizen means having a core allegiance, not to Rome's constitution or America's constitution, but to heaven's; not to Pennsylvania's commonwealth, but to heaven's. And that allegiance creates an obligation for us, as citizens of heaven, to act in distinctively heavenly ways here on earth – to embody heavenly values and support heavenly institutions which can regulate our lives here and now. And that means we mustn't worship our guts. It means we mustn't celebrate disgraceful ways. It means we mustn't make mud the measure of our minds (Philippians 3:19). It means we look up to what's up.

And that's why Martin Luther King, looking at this passage, once shouted out: “Although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. … Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God's will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it.”1 But 1800 years before Dr. King came around, a second-century Christian was already reflecting on this passage. He said that Christians “live in their native countries, but only as outsiders. They participate in everything like citizens and tolerate all things as foreigners. Every foreign place is their homeland, and every homeland is foreign. … They spend time on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the fixed laws, and their lifestyle rises above the laws. They love everyone and are persecuted by all. … When being punished, they rejoice as people being brought to life” (Ad Diognetum 5.5, 9-11, 16).

And in light of Paul's words here and these witnesses to it, I wonder if we've yet learned to think the same way. We can get awfully wrapped up with what's in the news. We can obsess and fixate on American politics to the extreme. We might be quick to stand up for the US Constitution than for the Bible sometimes, and to treat the Declaration of Independence like a lost book of scripture, and to cherish the blood of battlefields over the blood of the Son of God, and to be imagine that the starry blue canton on the American flag is the sapphire pavement beneath the foot of the Almighty's throne (cf. Exodus 24:20). I'm not sure if, in our hearts, we've really learned what's being said here. Do we live in America as a foreign land – understanding that we're still outsiders questing for our home? We may be prepared to participate in civic life according to our legal privileges, but are we also prepared to tolerate the twists and turns of this land's political turmoil like the foreigners we are? Do we have the fortitude to take a stand if the earthly institutions we like the most should be the ones that come into conflict with God's will? Are we willing to admit that our real constitution is the one written in heaven?

Because these words from the Apostle Paul change things. First and foremost, we are heavenly citizens: that's our capital city. And then we're a bunch of other things, and further down the list are we American citizens. And then it's a lot further down the list before we get to our political ideologies, to our partisan stances, to our feelings about Trump or Biden or Wolf or Smucker or about any politician. And the way we think and behave ought to reflect that order. Our political modes of thinking and acting shouldn't be conformed to what we think is more patriotic or more progressive; it should be conformed to what's heavenly. The questions of heavenly politics have to be settled first, and the smaller earthly questions will trail in their wake. Who is really Lord?

Paul's answer is very forthright: “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20)! And this Lord Jesus Christ has an energy or “power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). And any Philippian would have recognized the imperial language there. Remember how a Roman general had power enough to bring the Thracians into “peaceful subjection,” and how Brutus had brought Macedonia into 'subjection,' and how Antony and Octavian had brought the rebellious army into subjection. Jesus, Emperor of the 'Empire of Eternity,' is equipped to conquer, Paul's saying. But no Brutus or Cassius can stab him in the back. No Antony can try to wrench his power away. And all the Caesars, though they marched with enough force to subject cities and provinces and nations to themselves, pale next to Jesus' power to subject all things to himself. For Jesus has power enough to subject to himself even rebelliousness and death and the faithless human soul.

And Jesus is no less powerful today! He can still march in and subject our faithlessness to himself. He can still march in and subject our fearfulness to himself. He can still march in and subject demons and diseases to himself. He can march in and subject time and history and progress to himself. He has power to subject death itself to himself. There's nothing that the Lord Jesus doesn't have power and energy to conquer and to bring at long last into subjection, putting it in its proper place and overturning the old, obsolete rules of a fallen world.

But Paul continues by reminding the Philippian church – and our church – that the Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven as “a Savior” (Philippians 3:20). And that would have really hit the Philippians in their hearts, because 'Savior' was one of the titles used by the Roman emperor. Before he died, Julius Caesar was called “savior of human life.” Octavian, after he became Augustus, was hailed as “a savior who put an end to war and established all things.” The Emperor Claudius was celebrated as “savior of the world.” To the mind of a Roman, there was a mental link between power to subjugate, power to save, and authority to rule: Living in a world as rough as theirs, the Romans entrusted the imperium to people they believed could save them by making invaders and other threats subject to their rule, thereby preserving the Roman peace. And Paul, knowing he's talking to Philippians who think like Romans, is highlighting that God has empowered Jesus to subjugate all things to himself precisely so that he can save his heavenly citizens. Like an emperor marching from Rome out to the provinces to defend Roman citizens in a colony city under siege, so Christ will one day march from heaven out to this province of the universe, to defend heavenly citizens besieged in the city of man. Besieged by what? By sin and corruption and death. And Christ's arrival will be as the Savior from it all.

Jesus remains the Savior we desperately need today. I tell you, if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Republican Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're waiting for a savior to show up from the Democratic Party, you're looking in the wrong place. And if you're hunting through third parties for a savior, you're looking in the wrong place there too. The hunt for other saviors, political or otherwise, is a market of idols. Our Savior doesn't march from the White House, and our Savior doesn't march from the campaign trail. Our Savior marches from heaven. 

He already once “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), when we were yet assassins and crucifiers. As every Philippian lived in the shadow of the showdown between the Triumvirs and the Liberators, so we live in the shadow of the old rugged cross and the empty tomb. 

And yet we also read: “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). See, it's true that we “have been saved through faith... by grace” (Ephesians 2:8), and it's also true that each one of us right now, as a heavenly citizen, is still “being saved, if [we] hold fast to the word” of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:2); but it's also true that our salvation is also a future reality. “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13), when a Savior comes from heaven. We can still, like Jacob, say: “I wait for your salvation, O LORD (Genesis 49:18).

For when the Lord Jesus Christ comes as Savior, he'll save by using his power, his energy, his mighty working, to “transform our body of humiliation to conform it to his body of glory” (Philippians 3:21). Just as he once took on the form of a servant for us and was found in human likeness (Philippians 2:7), he'll give us the gift of the opposite. For while Jesus is still the Son of Man, his human body is now all glory. It burns and shines with might and awesome energy (cf. Revelation 1:14-15), and “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). In the meantime, we know that our bodies are humiliated by weakness, humiliated by sickness, humiliated by the temptation to sin that has its hooks in our fallen flesh. We're susceptible to so much, and shame has been a part of our embodied existence since we lost our glory in Eden (cf. Genesis 3:7). Our bodies are vulnerable, lowly, and inglorious. They are cursed to rejoin the dust from which they're made. 

But that won't always be the story. For when the Savior comes, he'll save us from corruption, he'll save us from dissolution, he'll save us from this mortal humiliation. And he'll do that by raising us up and conforming our bodies to his body of glory. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). “When he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). He'll give these bodies of ours imperishability and immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54). Our bodies will be raised up “in glory,” “in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43); “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

With that in store for us, with that hope in mind, “we eagerly await” our Savior's arrival from the heavenly city (Philippians 3:20). Paul's choice of word here underlines our intense eagerness for rescue, a constant yearning for a Savior – it's the sort of anticipation that tends to crowd out other thoughts, that puts everything else on the back burner. In Paul's time, if the emperor came to visit a town, the people would all come out into the streets to see him, greet him, celebrate him and his victorious troops. And it's that kind of excitement, but bigger, that Paul wants to cultivate in his churches. For the Lord Jesus Christ will come “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28), those who have been loyal citizens of his empire of eternity, who keep their ears attuned to heavenly news and their hearts fixed on heaven's politics: the politics of Jesus, Emperor of Our Salvation, the Conqueror with power and promise to make all the petty politics of earth subject to himself.

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, coming with power to transform our bodies to be like his glory, we mustn't set ourselves up as enemies of his cross, disdaining the road of suffering, loving to satisfy our guts and our shame. No, but we will “join in imitating” the Apostle Paul and will “keep [our] eyes on those who walk according to the example” of the apostles and prophets, the martyrs, the confessors, and all the saints who have journeyed back to the old country up yonder. And we will live as citizens of a different empire, an empire that isn't of this world but is already over this world and coming to this world. For this earth is a province under eternity's empire, and we are heaven's colonists planted here to defy the devilish rebellion out from which we've been redeemed, as Brutus' and Cassius' surrendering troops found pardon.

As we engage here with our earthly neighborhoods, we are called to bring heaven to them in ways that seem strange, maybe even to us. We're called to learn and embody heavenly values, to write our days as installments of a heavenly story, to stoke our heaven-hankering hearts with a hunger for a home. We are called to champion heavenly institutions, first and foremost the church. We are called to fill the libraries and the signs of the town square, not with the sounds and syllables of an earthly tongue, but with the wiser language of grace and mercy. We are called to build what imitates heaven here, all while knowing we wait for a salvation from corruption in which the whole creation will obtain its freedom with us (Romans 8:21). 

As for now, the siege of sin, the siege of sickness, the siege of corruption, the siege of violence and madness still rages on against us. But a Savior is coming from heaven where our citizenship lies. He, as Lord of Heaven, is incensed against all that besieges us. And when he comes, he will subject all things to himself and transform our bodies to match his, as he's already transforming our souls to be like his (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16). We will see heaven come true on earth when all things are made new – then earth will be all heavenly. Until then, our citizenship is held up yonder. Let us live by heaven's constitution and for heaven's commonwealth as we eagerly await from heaven our coming Savior!


1 Martin Luther King, “Paul's Letter to American Christians,” sermon given on 4 November 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

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